Friday, May 20, 2005

The Hills are Alive

 With the mercury rising (nay, risen) in Chennai, escaping to a hill station seems just the thing to do. But once you land up there, then what? Chances are, you’ve already ‘been there, done that’.

If you have a place to stay and means to travel locally (own or hired), and if you’re one of those who wants to get more out of your hill station holiday than just simple relaxation, read on.

The Usual Suspects
There are some standard sights to see in every hill station. You know the type – the lakes, the Suicide Points, the valley views and the many parks. Places that a sight-seeing bus will take you to, yet give you little time to explore. One thing you could do is revisit some places you’ve wanted to see at your leisure, yet never managed to. But yes, the spot is likely to be crowded over the summer if it features on the list of places that tourist taxis and buses normally swing through. So, go when there’s less likelihood of a crowd – early morning, perhaps?

Discovery Channels
Every hill station has its hidden gems, just waiting to be discovered. If you want to escape the crowds, one thing to do would be to research where the hoardes are taken by the guides, omit those places from your list and focus on others. However, do check timings or best time to visit before setting out.

There are some interesting places that you’ll come across quite by accident. These could be buildings in a style uncharacteristic of the region or interestingly shaped trees. A cave dwelling that only the locals know about or perhaps an eatery at the top of a hill commanding a great view. Maybe a different kind of museum? Do take the time and explore. After all, how often do you get to do something spontaneous? I still regret not stopping one drizzly July afternoon, for a ‘cutting-chai’ at a wayside teashop in Karnataka, on the side of a road flanked by lush forests.

People Who Make The Place
Home-stays offer a great opportunity to mingle with the local people. Chances are, your host must be an interesting person or could introduce you to other people in the region. If you’re a musician, you could come across someone who plays the same instrument, maybe in a different way? If you’re looking to pick up art, every place has a host of good local artists. On my last trip to Kodaikanal, I met a master cobbler, who makes moccasins the Red Indian (Native American?) way!

The Road Less Travelled
If you haven’t trekked before but would like to give it a shot, it’s best to start with a nature walk and a good guide who can take you to places best suited to your fitness level. Wear full sleeved clothes, as walking through a narrow path with shrubs on both sides, can leave you with quite a few nasty scratches. Ditto for trousers. As far as possible, wear dull-coloured clothes if you’re going into a forest reserve, where there’s a greater possibility of the presence of wildlife.

Good footwear is a must, as it determines literally how far you’ll go. Floaters are fine only for walks – in any case, they must be worn with thick sports socks to prevent abrasions on the foot when loose sand gets caught in them. Drink water at regular intervals. If setting out in the morning, have a fruit or a light breakfast and carry some eatables with you. I presume you know better than to litter the place!

If all this seems too much of an effort, think of the great views you’ll witness en route and once you’re there! One more thing – don’t step into water pools just to cool off your feet – they are extremely slippery and you’ll be cooling off more than you bargained for!

Past Continuous
Every hill station has its history, with American or British Officers having created townships to help their kin escape from the searing heat in the plains. People used to walk up the hills, until roads and railway tracks were laid. A good place to start your journey into the past, is at the local museum. From there, you may possibly come across the oldest church, the first bungalows, old monasteries that stand the test of time, abandoned tribal settlements and even ancient burial urns! If the idea doesn’t turn you off, do go to the cemeteries – there are many old stories that reside in tombstone inscriptions.

So, if you haven’t done the disappearing act from Chennai yet, now’s the time to head to those beckoning hills! I hope you rediscover the same place with new eyes!

(edited version published on May 20, 2005 in Madras Plus, the city features supplement of The Economic Times, Chennai. Pics by author for Madras Plus.)

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